Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Babies; Geniuses

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski are standing by their car on the side of a desert road. The car is a beat-up Chevy right out of one of those movies in which two characters travel the  USA in a similar beat-up Chevy. It is midday and hot. Werner examines the open hood, while Klaus paces angrily past the driver’s side.

Klaus: I hope the buzzards peck your eyes out.

Werner looks up from his work.

Werner: You know how I don’t like birds. I don’t appreciate your bringing them up. (He stares at the engine). There is no intelligence behind their eyes. They are soulless and monstrous and an unfair antagonist. Hitchcock knew this. (Pause) Do you know anything of carburetors?

Klaus: No.

Werner:  You are the shit of the world.

(Klaus takes a drag on a cigarette)

Klaus: Anyway, we are not wet.

Werner: What is this?

Klaus: We are not wet. The last time you and I were in such intolerable proximity, you had dragged me to the rainforest for the second time, and it was wet. You told me we were making a movie, Werner, not that I was to fall victim to pneumonia.

(The camera cuts to a small hill overlooking the two artists. A bear observes them silently from the hill’s crest. Small bits of clothing dangle from the bear’s mouth, including what is very clearly a wristwatch).

Klaus: Why must you always attempt to kill me in the name of cinema, Werner?

Werner: Kinski. We are not making a movie now, and you are not nearly dead. And I try to kill you because more people will watch the movie if you actually expire. I plan to build a grotto off the profits.

(Klaus looks shocked)

Werner: No such thing, now. Everyone thinks I’m such a serious damn artist. Well, they are right, but I do not starve.

Klaus: You would kill me for money?

Werner: I would kill you for far less. Certain small trinkets. Birdshot. A woman’s promise.

Klaus: Women find you repellent.

Werner: I cast you in Nosferatu because you actually look like the undead, so let us not go comparing appeal.

Klaus: Vampires have great power over the opposite sex, but that is not the point. Every time you make a movie that is not one of your horrid documentaries, you cast me as the lead. Were I do die, what would you do for your next piece of tripe?

Werner:  Very likely, find someone who does not act as if he were an underpaid prostitute trying to get off early.

(Klaus whirls around)

Klaus: What did you say to me?

Werner: I’m sorry, Klaus. I know how you hate being compared to your mother.

(Klaus storms toward Werner)

Werner: Or was it your father? I suppose after the war, jobs were hard to come by for amateur fascistii, so they took what they could get!

(Klaus is, by this point right in Werner’s face)

Klaus: Herzog.

Werner: Kinski.

(Klaus pushes him aside and starts to work on the car)

Klaus: You living shit. I have found this now. I will pack you in the back of this trunk and drive off with you to a dark place where the eyes of man do not reach, and I will consume you.

(Klaus is working with surprisingly alacrity at this point)

Klaus: I will do this because I am a hero of all humanity. You are too dangerous to live, Herzog, and too toxic to bury, so I will consume you. Before nature takes its course, I will build a pyre and throw myself atop it when the fire is at its height. I will be the hungry torch that removes the curse of Werner Herzog from this world, because I, Klaus Kinski, am the wrath of God, and you are the Anti-Christ.

(Klaus slams the hood down)


(Werner turns the key. The car turns over. He claps his hands in delight.)

Werner: You see!  I have ever been able to inspire you to the heights of greatness. You are very talented when you’re angry.

Klaus: What?

(He shakes his head)

Klaus: What happened? I blacked out there for a moment.

Werner: Funny. That’s exactly what your mother said after I was done with her.

Klaus: Herzog!

Werner: Or was it your father?

(Klaus lunges at Werner, but is stopped short by a loud growl. The bear is now less than twenty feet away from them, standing on its hind legs. The wristwatch dangles from the beast’s jaws, and finally dislodges, shattering on the ground. The two men freeze)

Werner: This all seems so familiar.

Klaus: Suddenly my desire to see you dismembered has waned.

Werner: Nature is hostile to us. Why did we ever leave Los Angeles?

Klaus: No one is going to be interested in you and me if nice things happen to us, Werner.

(The bear roars again. Hillbilly music plays. Klaus and Werner dive for the steering wheel. The screen freezes.)

Thursday, November 12, 2009


The forest is no fit place for a young Italian man to live.

I feel like I’m dancing around bear traps sometimes. Except for a pleasant four years in Chicago where I lived by a lake, every place I’ve called home has bordered on or been surrounded by a forest. My family’s property in Canton was, some years back, carved out of a copse of trees next to a cornfield. The trees were so congested that the few patches left are still sufficient to block out the sun at the right time of day. Wolves, languidly confident, sometimes venture out of the woods to stare. Huge deer munch on my father’s tomato plants despite the best efforts to fence them out. My father, my brother and I came across one mid-meal once, and fanned out in an attempt to capture the thing. What were we thinking, exactly? Even if one of us had something other than our bare hands, I’m certain that killing a deer in Massachusetts is illegal.

It bounded away at top speed before we got within fifty feet. Back into the forest.

That seems so long ago.

Quinctilius Varus took three legions from Rome to cement the Empire’s rule of Germania. This was two thousand years ago, give or take two months. Three legions is twenty five thousand men, all marching in red rectangles to civilize the barbarians.

Maybe a relative of mine marched with them. Unless I get a genetic test, I’ll never really know from where my family originated. As far back as I’ve  cared to trace it, we’re Italian to the core, but my family turns out light as well as dark, unlike what you’d traditionally see. Back in college, my brother researched the history of Cassino, my family’s hometown, and found that it had been invaded by (conservatively) everybody. English, French, Germans, Moors, Vikings, and probably Carthaginians and the Aragonese for all I know. I never really got how people could be terribly proud of a cartoon version of their heritage (KISS ME, I’M ITALIAN) after I heard about that little revelation. Better to embrace your commonality with everyone, and make where your ancestors came from the least interesting thing about you.

If a distant DeMartino did make that march, it didn’t end well for him. Varus was betrayed. His men were slaughtered. This doesn’t happen all that much in modern times, because you have lines of communication and advanced forms of transportation, so people can get away, but odds are that every single one of Varus’ 25,000 legionaries died or were captured. Rome was devastated by the loss – the emperor Augustus (who found Rome in brick and left it in marble) was said to have gone temporarily mad, banging his head against the walls of his villa and crying, “Quinctilius Varus, give me back my legions!”

The battle took place in the forest of Teutoburg.

I live in a condominium surrounded by several miles of forest, deep enough so that the woods will come to me as I’m walking from my car. It’s not all bad. A family of foxes greeted me once as I pulled into my parking space. All of them fled except for one, the youngest. We stared one another down until its mother came back to fetch it.

Other times, the darkness seems to stretch and stretch. We used to hold bonfires in a sandpit (the origin of which we never discovered) in the middle of a forest near my friend Yaron’s house. Heading back from the campfire one night, many years ago, my flashlight went out just as I reached the edge of the woods. I kept walking, because I was sure that if I looked over my shoulder, I would have seen nothing at all.

I hope someday I’ll end up sipping wine on a hill, overlooking a lake. It’ll be a nice change from the constant sense of menace they exude. I don’t know that it has anything to do with Teutoburg, but almost exactly two millennia ago, someone whose chin or eyes or laugh may have resembled mine was in a forest too, his shield soaked and useless, the trees suddenly teeming with painted men who sacrificed their captives to a woods-god.  For all I know, he may still be there.

Anyways, history hasn’t been kind to young Italian men in the forest.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


Dragon Age: Origins is supposed to be the big role-playing game this year. You can tell because the trailers feature portentous music, big battle scenes, and a bunch of characters looking Very Serious about the Overwhelming Evil that is threatening the Vaguely Medieval* world they inhabit. Needless to say, I am playing the shit out of this game.  I’m a sucker for all of that. Drop me in Faux-Europe, point me in the direction of whatever horrible monster needs a-choppin’, and I’m thrilled.

*What is it about medieval times that made them the default setting for any RPG? Why not Rome? Why can’t I be an Aztec or a Pharaoh? Or like…I dunno, an Aborigine? I bet you could have a lot of fun as an Aborigine.

There’s a lot to recommend it. The combat system is fluid and complex, and responds well to what you’re trying to accomplish with it. The graphics are lush. The voice acting is excellent (have you ever seen what bad voice acting can do to a game? I played the first Resident Evil at my aunt and uncle’s house in Italy, and even the people there who spoke no English were laughing at how bad the voice acting was in that game). BioWare makes the game, and I’ve liked roughly everything they’ve done. Something about the way they put the whole package together just appeals to me; their games feel right. I can usually tell within about five minutes whether or not a game will hold my interest just based on the tone it sets.

What really sold me on Dragon Age, however, was a very brief trailer regarding the party interaction system. Your character walks around a campfire, talking to each of his buddies in turn. They respond to you with various ways; one is reticent, another flirtatious, one is grateful for something you did in a previous interaction. Another begs for food*. It’s designed to showcase how much work they put into making the characters seem believable.

*This character is a dog.

None of that is what grabbed me. I’ve seen tons of games that do characters well. Heck, most of them were BioWare’s to begin with, so it’s not like this is something I didn’t expect. It’s like EA Sports making a reasonable approximation of what it would be like to coach a football game if you could ride the SkyCam, or the guys who made Myst making another shitty point-and-click adventure that doesn’t go any-damn-where.

What grabbed me is this: you’re sitting around a campfire, and that’s all you’re doing.

If this seems strange to you, you have to consider the one factor that is the center of nearly every popular non-sports, non-puzzle game of the past ten years:



OK, murder is maybe too strong of  a word. I apologize. Sometimes I use words to shock you and draw you in despite the fact that they may be less-than-accurate. I wanted to be a sportswriter once. It’s a bad habit.

Let’s rephrase. One series I’ve kept up with along the years is Halo; I’ve played it since its inception and through its various sequels. The most recent incarnation has an online application that tracks your various stats—medals won, hours played, and so on. I checked it recently and found that, in the campaign mode (in which you Save the World from an Alien Menace), I’d killed something along the lines of 7,000 enemies in three playthroughs.

This didn’t take me as long as you’d think. I’ll be conservative and estimate that each playthrough took 20 hours, maximum, so that’s a little more than a hundred baddies dead per hour.

A hundred per hour! In game-time, Halo 3’s campaign takes place over the course of maybe…three days? A week at the outmost if you’re being generous with estimating what you don’t see in between levels? The most deadly soldier in history, in terms of enemy lives personally ended, is a Finnish guy by the name of Simo Hayha*, who killed something along the lines of seven hundred Russian invaders during the Second World War. He did this in three months.  That works out to eight per day.

*In case you’re wondering, his answer to how he pulled this particular feat off is “Practice”.

Now, Halo 3 is awfully well-paced, but you’re basically killing, killing, killing constantly. There’s no downtime.

Pretty much every other game does this. You’re either killing something, in transit to killing something, or spending a perfunctory amount of time recovering from killing something. From Mario to Master Chief, I’d say I’ve probably ended hundreds of thousands of virtual lives.

Let me be clear: the effect this has had on my fragile conception of right and wrong has been zero. If you’re a sociopath, you’re not more likely to kill someone because Call of Duty 4 somehow presented you with the idea that killing is good. About the only real-world skill that could possibly be carried over is the importance of leading one’s target. The first and only time I picked up a gun*, which was in a skeet-shooting activity on a cruise ship when I was twelve, I hit exactly half the moving targets I shot at, simply because I had the good sense to fire at where they would be rather than where they were. ‘

*Shotguns are really heavy. Also, my shoulder hurt for a day afterwards.

In the context of games, however, this has two effects. First off, why the hell are there no consequences from my character outdoing Rambo in half the time the movie took to get him to Vietnam? Video game writer Tim Rogers has written about this at length*, but if there’s a psychological consequence from killing one person in real life, why do video game characters (many of whom start the game as adventurers or scientists or some other relatively non-murderous profession) mow down hundreds without even a sniffle? Do they all go straight to the PTSD ward of their virtual Walter Reed after I hit the power switch?

*He writes about everything “at length”. If you think this is long, try slogging through 12,000 words about it.

Second, and this is where the crux of my argument lies, constant conflict is just not believable, because it’s actually kind of stressful. Even Simo Hayha had time to chat with his buds in Finnish before sending some poor Ukrainian conscript to an early grave. He wasn’t cooking off thousands of rounds in ten minutes. My favorite part of all of Gears of War 2 was a short segment where you’re on top of a mobile drilling rig, looking out at a vast and tree-covered valley, and nothing is trying to murder you. That lasts about a minute. Give me some time to hang out, guys. Let me chat with the other gruff space marines riding shotgun before you barrage me with stuff I need to aim at in order to progress to the next part where I (in a stunning and newfangled concept) find more stuff I need to aim at.

I can get plenty of non-stop bullet storms in the game’s online mode. This is single player. Let me relax.


Back to Dragon Age.

Most of the games I mentioned above are not RPGs, so this argument is a little bit less applicable to them. RPGs do have downtime (you have to go to a town to purchase supplies or break into people’s houses or whatever), but they’re so rarely an actual break. You’re just replenishing the numbers that represent your life, or stamina, or killtasticity. What Dragon Age is selling is the promise that there’s something to do beyond all the head-cutting. Sometimes, you have to take a break, but that break can still serve the story. Maybe it’ll even be the best part of the game.

Monday, November 2, 2009


I had a discussion recently with my friend Ben where we speculated on a graphic novel series featuring Amelia Earhart as a central character.  The comic would start at the point of her last known contact with humanity –- the transmission of “We are running on line north and south” picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, through either natural or supernatural means, would survive the storm and make lives for themselves as itinerant crime fighters or revolutionaries or adventurers.

Neither of us can draw.

I doubt it would get off the ground anyways. You remember Anastasia? The whole conceit was that the Russian princess had survived the murder of her family and had gone off to live as a street urchin or something. She ends up fighting against Zombie Rasputin*. Quite a charming animated tale that had the good fortune to be made before modern DNA analysis discovered that, yes, Anastasia’s charred and scattered bones were interred with the rest of her kin. Any sequel would be  a non-starter.

*One would argue that “Zombie Rasputin” is redundant – the man was poisoned, shot four times, beaten, and thrown in an icy river in his almost-botched assassination attempt, and he only ended up dying from that last bit.

I don’t know that truth can entirely quash a legend. There will be, without a doubt, people claiming to be the Lindbergh baby, or his son/grandson/great-grandson for presumably as long as people actually remember the story. However, truth can pale a legend, can cause its evocative power to become reedy and indistinct. 

So long as Amelia Earhart still lurked among the Pacific storm clouds, she would have remained a legend. We could have made her a female James Bond, or a rescue angel, or a Nazi-fighting air huntress. Who would have argued?

It seems they may have found her. As is customary, the truth is more striking than the legend. Experts from The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery* believe Earhart and Noonan crash-landed on Nikumaroro Island, where they became castaways and quickly succumbed to injury, starvation, exposure, or the island’s extreme heat. Their bones were carried off by crabs.

*That is a remarkably specific group. How do you get into something like that? Do you have to stumble on Yamamoto’s transport? How many of these things can there be?

So we mourn, for two people who set out on an adventure and met a bleak end. We mourn for their legend, as something has been irretrievably lost. In a very real way, Amelia Earhart was alive all this time. The intrepid fellows who are closing in on her final resting place do so with a sort of murder in their hearts.

Don’t get me wrong. Being a legend is nice, but this is a mercy killing. Amelia and Fred have spent almost a century frozen at the moment of impact. They’ve been lost longer than they lived. The one thing we owe everyone who has gone before us is our attention. Take heart. We’ll do the best we can to find you.